On the Road in Bird Country

A 4,700-mile odyssey through America's heartland in pursuit of pheasants, fowl, and the ultimate $5 breakfast.

Field & Stream Online Editors

I t was one of those raw November days with the sky hanging low and dark all the way to the horizon, no green anywhere, and a sense of winter coming on. Stan and I were walking across a farm field in Iowa. My English pointer, Jeb, worked out ahead of us, coursing through the knee-deep grass. "Hunt them up, Jeb," I said. He was already hunting and had been from the moment his paws hit the ground. Unlike me, Jeb did not need to work out the road cramps. He ignored the pointless command and went on with his work.

"Looking birdy," Stan said, 15 minutes after we'd started across the field. Fixed to one spot with his nose low and his tail high, Jeb was motionless and straining to stay that way. His lips curled a little so you could see his teeth.

"Steady," I said. I was big on the obvious this morning.

Stan and I moved past him.

The bird came out of the grass with the distinctive, shrill rooster's call, red and green markings plain in the blur. Stan swung on the bird and shot, and it folded. "Nice shot," I shouted. "Fetch, Jeb. Hunt dead."

He didn't need to be told that, either.

"First pheasant of the trip?" Stan asked after Jeb had made the retrieve.

"First pheasant," I replied. "But we've got a cooler full of sharptails, prairie chickens, quail, and ducks."

"How long have you been on the road?"

I'd lost track of the days.

"Two thousand miles," I said. "Give or take a few."

"Yeah, that looks about right. Jeb's ribs are showing, and you're looking a little gaunt. And then...there's the smell."

"Him or me?"

"Him...mostly."

"Well," I said, "this is our last stop before we head back home and clean up our act."

My tone, I noticed, was one of regret.

**Making Plans **
The seductions of the American road have been lavishly sung and celebrated. You gas up and head out, sometimes with no particular place to go. You put your foot into the accelerator, and the road makes that music that restores your soul as you pass through the little towns and over the big rivers and through the vast, monotonous fields of grain. The country melts away behind you and there is always more ahead. You feel as if you could drive forever-or at least until you get tired of listening to Willie Nelson and drinking rank road coffee.

I'd always wanted to take a bird-hunting road trip, and my pointer, Jeb Stuart, wasn't getting any younger. So with the grouse coverts around my home in Vermont starting to feel too...oh, familiar...I started thinking about a long road trip. My friends here and there would put me up and put me on birds. Where I didn't know anybody, there would be cheap motels where they'd let my dog sleep in the room with me. I could cruise the section roads, stopping at farmhouses to knock on the door and ask, politely, if they'd mind my hunting birds on their land. Worst they could do is say no, and then I'd move on down the road and try again.

I made calls and sent e-mails to friends in Nebraska, Missouri, and Iowa. I studied maps and went to the Web to learn about public hunting areas. Circling them on a map, I found that there were more of these than I had expected. I made checklists of what I'd need and stored the requisite numbers in my cellphone. As the day got closer, I changed the oil and rotated the tires on my little SUV.

Saturday, I loaded up for a Sunday departure: two side-by-sides, a 20 and a 28, plus my 12-gauge pump in case I got an opportunity to hunt ducks. I packed a tent, sleeping bag, stove, axe, and saw for camping; a cooler for birds and lunches and the occasional cold beer at the end of a day in the field; brierproof pants, rain gear, boots, spare boots, and all the other paraphernalia that seemed either necessary or prudent to have along. BR>
**DAYS 1 AND 2 | To the Promised Land **
I slept soundly and we were off the next morning before dawn, in a cold, driving, late-October rain that made it seem like a good day to be leaving home.

"We're headed to the Promised Land, Jeb," I said. "Lots of country and plenty of birds. It'll be just you and me and the American road."

Jeb gave me a look that I took for comprehension. He understood.

We made 700 miles that first day, about the same on the second. Eyeballing the map, I figured we were almost exactly in the middle of the Lower 48. The town was Halsey, Nebraska.

"Well," I said, "we made it."

The air was cold, and there was a sharp wind coming off the plains. At the motel office, the woman had been expecting me and had the key ready.

I registered and gave her my credit card. She was about to run it when I noticed the little sign behind the desk.

Rate: $39. Dogs: $10 extra.

"I do have a dog," I said.

The woman nodded, made a change on the form, ran the card, then handed me the key.

"Thank you," I said and went back outside.

"Good news, Jeb," I said. "Tonight, you sleep on a bed."

[NEXT "DAYS 3 AND 4"] DAYS 3 AND 4 | Open-Country Prairie Chickens
The Nebraska National Forest, outside of Halsey, was one of the public hunting areas I had circled on my map. It covers some 100,000 acres, a small fraction of them grown up in weirdly twisted pine trees planted by the Forest Service at the urging of Theodore Roosevelt. A cash crop, the thinking went back then, would improve the otherwise barren land, but the trees never panned out commercially, mostly because of the wind that blows ceaselessly across the plains. The surviving stands, however, provide good habitat for deer and turkeys. And in the open country, where the native grasses still grow, you can hunt sharptail grouse and prairie chickens.

Steve, whom I had e-mailed from Vermont, was waiting for me at the diner the next morning. He had arrived from Colorado the night before, and he had a better plan.

"I met a rancher when I was eating dinner last night," he told me as we looked over our menus. "He's got 7,000 acres east of town, with irrigated alfalfa fields and plenty of birds. He said we're welcome to hunt there."

He didn't have to tell me more.

A cold front had moved through the previous night, and there was an inch of snow on the ground when we got to the ranch. The sky was full of geese, flying in long Vs, and we listened to their mournful music as we worked the alfalfa where we did, indeed, find prairie chickens.

That morning we probably saw 300 birds, all in huge coveys and feeding in thin cover. What this meant was a lot of eyes keeping watch. The birds would flush and bear downwind for the cedar shelterbelts before Jeb could make scent or we could get within range. When a covey flushed, it looked like a cloud of grasshoppers. Earlier in the season, we'd have found them in singles and pairs. It would have been a field day.

"I believe we've got a unique situation here," Steve said.

"What's that?"

"We've actually got too many birds."

"Well that," I said, "has got to be a first for me."

Midday, we took a break and went looking for the rancher to see if he'd like to share our lunch. He was stacking hay and seemed grateful for the company, and also the sandwiches and hot coffee. It was cold enough that he was wearing a quilted jumpsuit.

He was a talker, and it was good talk. His ranch had a history. "It's one of the oldest in the state," he said. "And you know what paid for it?"

I bit on that one.

"What?" I asked.

"Prairie chickens."

Seems his great-grandfather had shot the birds from horseback with an old double gun that he could break and load quickly enough to get off four shots on a covey rise.

"Land went for a dollar an acre back then," he said pensively. "Restaurants in Kansas City would pay a dollar and a quarter for a chicken. My great-grandfather would pack them into barrels, salt them, and send them down on the railroad."

Seven thousand acres' worth.

I counted that story as payoff for a morning of chasing birds without putting any on the ground. And there were other side benefits from two days of hunting around Halsey. Steve and I saw an eagle, a bobcat, and a buck mule deer with a prodigious rack.

The one restaurant in town was special, too. The breakfasts were the kind that you only eat when you are on the road and not concerned about committing nutritional suicide: eggs over easy and greasy with sausage, home fries, and buttered toast on the side. We'd have a whiskey at dinner while we waited for our steaks, feeling that we'd earned them. I slept soundly, with Jeb at my feet. He was enjoying this trip as much as I was.

We walked the hills on the public hunting areas in the national forest, where the sand cherries were as thick as they were on the rancher's land and the birds were just as skittish. But this was new ground and that, maybe, is one of the deep satisfactions of going on the road to hunt. It is all new ground, and you feel optimistic when you park near an old stock tank and put the dog out.

"Looks good," you say. "Got to hold some birds." You've never been frustrated here, so you are full of hope.

And if we didn't mop up, I didn't leave empty-handed. We jumped a couple of mallards off one of the rancher's ponds, and I managed a long passing shot when a covey of chickens asleep at the switch got up just barely in range.

"Can't talk you into staying another day?" Steve asked at the end of my second day in Halsey. "I'd stay all week if I could. But I've got to meet Fred in Missouri."

So I gave him the ducks, kept the lone chicken, and Jeb and I pushed on. We had 400 miles to go.

[NEXT "DAY 5"] **DAY 5 | Righteous Ducks **
Fred and I met for breakfast at dark-thirty. The restaurant smelled like bacon grease, and the customers were all men wearing camouflage. Big rack mounts and 10-pound bass hung on the walls, and a fog of cigarette smoke floated below the ceiling. I had a case of the road staggers and needed coffee.

I thanked the waitress when she poured it.

"You're welcome," she said, cheerfully. She was about eight months pregnant.

"Well, honey," Fred said, "I guess we know how you're spending your free time."

"I can't wait," she said. "It's my fifth one."

"Sweetheart," Fred said, "you need to buy yourself a television."

Fred owned some property at the edge of the Squaw Creek Wildlife Preserve ok and load quickly enough to get off four shots on a covey rise.

"Land went for a dollar an acre back then," he said pensively. "Restaurants in Kansas City would pay a dollar and a quarter for a chicken. My great-grandfather would pack them into barrels, salt them, and send them down on the railroad."

Seven thousand acres' worth.

I counted that story as payoff for a morning of chasing birds without putting any on the ground. And there were other side benefits from two days of hunting around Halsey. Steve and I saw an eagle, a bobcat, and a buck mule deer with a prodigious rack.

The one restaurant in town was special, too. The breakfasts were the kind that you only eat when you are on the road and not concerned about committing nutritional suicide: eggs over easy and greasy with sausage, home fries, and buttered toast on the side. We'd have a whiskey at dinner while we waited for our steaks, feeling that we'd earned them. I slept soundly, with Jeb at my feet. He was enjoying this trip as much as I was.

We walked the hills on the public hunting areas in the national forest, where the sand cherries were as thick as they were on the rancher's land and the birds were just as skittish. But this was new ground and that, maybe, is one of the deep satisfactions of going on the road to hunt. It is all new ground, and you feel optimistic when you park near an old stock tank and put the dog out.

"Looks good," you say. "Got to hold some birds." You've never been frustrated here, so you are full of hope.

And if we didn't mop up, I didn't leave empty-handed. We jumped a couple of mallards off one of the rancher's ponds, and I managed a long passing shot when a covey of chickens asleep at the switch got up just barely in range.

"Can't talk you into staying another day?" Steve asked at the end of my second day in Halsey. "I'd stay all week if I could. But I've got to meet Fred in Missouri."

So I gave him the ducks, kept the lone chicken, and Jeb and I pushed on. We had 400 miles to go.

[NEXT "DAY 5"] **DAY 5 | Righteous Ducks **
Fred and I met for breakfast at dark-thirty. The restaurant smelled like bacon grease, and the customers were all men wearing camouflage. Big rack mounts and 10-pound bass hung on the walls, and a fog of cigarette smoke floated below the ceiling. I had a case of the road staggers and needed coffee.

I thanked the waitress when she poured it.

"You're welcome," she said, cheerfully. She was about eight months pregnant.

"Well, honey," Fred said, "I guess we know how you're spending your free time."

"I can't wait," she said. "It's my fifth one."

"Sweetheart," Fred said, "you need to buy yourself a television."

Fred owned some property at the edge of the Squaw Creek Wildlife Preserve o